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New Program Lets Homebound Seniors Use Food Stamps For Grocery Delivery

A Hy-Vee employee weighs grapes for delivery to a customer in their grocery delivery program.
A Hy-Vee employee weighs grapes for delivery to a customer in their grocery delivery program.

A new food delivery program could help homebound seniors stay independent longer. During this summer’s White House Conference on Aging, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a pilot program that would allow seniors with food-stamp benefits to use grocery delivery programs. The service hopes to give seniors better access to healthful foods. The USDA says it could help low-income seniors remain home longer instead of moving to an assisted-living facility.

This story was originally published by KBIA.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said almost 3 million seniors struggle to buy nutritious food primarily because they don’t have transportation. 

"Home delivery of groceries is an important step forward in serving the needs of these vulnerable populations. Allowing homebound seniors and people with disabilities to use their SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits through government and non-profit home delivery services will help ensure they have access to healthy foods," Secretary Vilsack said in a press release. 

More than 4 million seniors use SNAP assistance, but the USDA reports that’s less than half of the seniors eligible. 

“It's our view that one of the reasons that they're not participating [in SNAP] is that they may be in a place where it's difficult to access good food,” Vilsack said.

The 2014 Farm Bill added rules allowing grocery delivery services to process SNAP payments just like grocery stores or farmers markets. The USDA will soon begin a year-long pilot program to work out the kinks before the rule change takes place. 

Some grocery stores already offer delivery services, including several Hy-Vee stores, a grocery store chain in the Midwest. But the new changes to SNAP are only available to government and nonprofit organizations, so existing commercial services won't be able to deliver groceries through SNAP quite yet. 

The USDA will sign as many as 20 food purchasing and delivery services to participate in a one-year pilot program, but finding nonprofit programs to process SNAP benefits may be a challenge.

“They really can't afford the time or the money to process two payments,” said Executive Director Mary Jo Schifsky of Store-to-Door, a nonprofit organization in Minnesota that provides grocery shopping and delivery services for seniors.

Store-to-Door has been around for more than 30 years, but Schifsky said there are only a handful of organizations like it because people aren’t aware of the need.

“The aging population, people are very aware that it is going to be a very large and needy population. But there's not a really cohesive or coherent plan to address their needs,” Schifsky said. “The goal for everybody is to remain in their home. It's much less expensive and people tend to be healthier there, but to stay in your home, you really need services.”

But Vilsack said the USDA is hopeful that providing easier ways to pay for the groceries will encourage the creation of more delivery programs in states across the country. 

“When you basically provide a vehicle for paying for the grocery and so forth, it creates the incentive for people to look for ways in which that business opportunity can be taken advantage of,” Vilsack said.